New Secret To Resisting Junk Food: Just Put It Off

If a forbidden doughnut is tempting you to break your diet, tell yourself you'll have a bite later — just don't specify when.

That strategy makes it less likely you'll go on a doughnut-eating spree, according to new research presented here last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Unlike simply delaying gratification ("I'll wait until dessert"), promising yourself a temptation at a nebulous later date can actually decrease the amount of your ultimate consumption of that temptation.

"It really keeps the temptation at arm's length," said study researcher Nicole Mead, a psychologist at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics in Portugal.

In a series of experiments, Mead and her colleagues found that this postponement strategy neither encourages guilt-ridden indulgence in an unhealthy treat nor does it encourage painful abstinence (which all too often leads to later bingeing). In one experiment, the researchers provided volunteers, who were completing various tasks in the lab, with bowls of M&Ms. Some students were told to eat the M&Ms if they wanted, some were told to avoid eating them, and a third group was told that they could eat the M&Ms later, if they felt like it.

At the end of the experiment, after the students could assume the researchers were no longer interested in them, the psychologists brought back the M&M bowls. The students who had snacked on the treats to their satisfaction earlier ate 5.19 grams of the candies (in addition to what they'd eaten already). Those who were deprived of M&Ms earlier went wild, eating 9.81 grams. In comparison, the postponement group ate 5.08 grams, the least of all three groups.

"Participants in the 'don't eat' condition ate practically double the amount of M&Ms" as those in the "wait until later" condition, Mead wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Not only that, she said, but the experiment had real-world implications right away. Participants who had been forbidden from eating chocolate at first in the experiment ate chocolate on average 4.48 times in the week following the experiment, and participants who had been able to eat M&Ms at will ate chocolate 3.18 times on average in the next week. But participants in the "wait until later" condition ate chocolate only 1.15 times, on average, over the next week.

"What this means is that postponement has real implications for everyday consumption," Mead said. "It encourages self-control."

In another experiment, the researchers extended the findings to the real world, giving potato chips to 105 students at a Netherlands high school. The students were divided into the same groups as in the M&M study. And this time, an additional group of students could choose between the three eating plans.

The researchers then tracked how many chips the students ate over the next seven days. Just as in the lab, students who put off eating the chips until later ended up eating the least, and didn't compensate by overeating other snack foods, Mead said. Best of all, the strategy worked whether chosen or assigned. [7 Diet Tricks That Really Work]

"It's a cooling-off strategy," Mead said.

Most likely, postponing a treat until an unspecified later time helps get people over the hump of strong temptation, said Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, who studies willpower but was not involved in Mead's research.

"You need the resistance at the moment of peak desire, then the peak desire moment passes," Baumeister said.

It's not clear whether using the postponement strategy would work as a weight-loss method, Mead said, as focusing on the dieting aspect of postponement might, ironically, keep the temptation in your mind, where you have to fight it. (Research published in the journal Science in 2010, however, showed that fantasizing about a particular food could actually help you resist eating that food.)

But passing on the desired treat once might even revamp a person's self-image, Mead said. A person who turns down M&Ms in the moment might start to think of themselves as someone who doesn't even like M&Ms all that much. The next time the opportunity comes around, it may be easier to turn down the chocolates again.

"It seems that every time they encounter it again, they desire it less and less," she said.

The trick, Mead warned, is not to promise yourself the treat at a specific time. In one lab study with cookies as a temptation, the participants who had to put off eating the cookies until the end of the study ate just as much as those who got to give into temptation earlier.

"If you make it specific, then you're probably going to engage in that consumption," Mead said.


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  • by Shine Location: NE NC on Feb 5, 2012 at 05:38 AM
    I don't enjoy running against the 'grain' of things. Number 1: I have learned over half of my life it does no good anyway. It does burn me up to see folks go in a 'curb store' and buy junk and food on a swipe card - and go out and get in a vehicle that is new or less than 2 yrs. old ------ knowing that they and their kids above whatever age it is --- have a cell phone for free, a laptop from school, free breakfast, free lunch, and their elictricity at where they live is subsidized along w/ the taxes and the landline. I don't have that opportunity. ----
  • by rubyshue Location: ca on Feb 4, 2012 at 10:18 PM
    Higher gas prices? a good news "Get Official Samples" is the best source for free health product samples. Find tons of great stuff.
  • by c-had Location: police state nc on Feb 4, 2012 at 09:47 PM
    I drink my poison.
  • by Anonymous on Feb 4, 2012 at 01:27 PM
    If people in this world would just worry about themselves and not everyone else and what they are eating and spending thier OWN money on then none of this mess would even have a chance to gunk up the news. People are so scared that somone else might have freedom to do what they want, they can't wait to make a statment. Just like taxing sugar, and telling people they cant have any. Stuipd, and down right sorry.
  • by Vince Location: Washington on Feb 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM
    Something isn't right with this article. Do they mean ounces instead of grams? One M&M weighs what, maybe 2 grams? I wouldn't call eating 5 M&Ms going "wild." Let me at em and I will show you what going wild with M&Ms looks like. Like none left kinda wild... ounces and ounces gone.... forget this gram stuff.
  • by Chris Location: Gville on Feb 4, 2012 at 12:11 PM
    Ewel do you think poor people should not be allowed a treat now and then? I suppose you think they should be allowed bread and cheese only. What a shame you are.
    • reply
      by Vince on Feb 4, 2012 at 01:03 PM in reply to Chris
      Yay, you got it! If I'm footing the bill for someone else's grocery bill... someone that supposedly doesn't have any money to buy their own food, and therefore will hypothetically starve without my assistance... you must understand that I want them to spend it on healthy food. If they want a treat they can get a job and support themselves. I don't buy much snack or "treat" food for myself because I cannot afford to splurge much on that kind of stuff. I definitely don't want to be buying it for someone else. No treats on my dime.
      • reply
        by Audra - SoCal on Feb 5, 2012 at 09:23 AM in reply to Vince
        Amen, Vince!
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Feb 4, 2012 at 03:11 PM in reply to Chris
      You want to pay for carts full of chips, sodas, cookies and the like. Go to the store and buy it for them out of your own pocket.
  • by LOL on Feb 4, 2012 at 09:24 AM
    Police car right below the donuts.way to go witn.
  • by Grady Location: USA on Feb 4, 2012 at 08:49 AM
    I wonder how much this stupid study cost taxpayers....
    • reply
      by amy on Feb 4, 2012 at 03:14 PM in reply to Grady
      Last time I looked at the map, Portugal and the Netherlands were not in the US.
  • by Jeff Location: Winterville on Feb 4, 2012 at 08:38 AM
    There isn't a big enough variance to convince me this research is legit. I do think that if you can resist a Krispy Kreme when you pass the Hot Doughnuts Now sign, you won't make a special trip to go back later. So this strategy may work.
  • by Shine Location: NE NC on Feb 4, 2012 at 06:18 AM
    According to the article "Wait until dessert"..... If you don't have dessert after a meal - then you don't have to wait at all --- My wife and myself bake alot - we love baking it - but we very seldom eat more than a sample.... but I do love a Krispy-Kreme doughnut every once in a while - more especially when the 'Hot' sign is on.
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